Chasing That Pig
For almost 30 years I thought I’d caught the pig. I even told my children I’d caught it. This is where things get tricky, because I don’t really have a memory of it at all; more like a recollection of a telling, a moment in which someone once said to me that I chased a greased pig.
I must’ve interpreted the telling to mean I caught it. If I chased it, I must’ve caught it. And until recently this is what I believed, but when I asked my parents, grandparents and siblings about the circumstances surrounding the event, not one of them remembered me catching that pig. But this memory has become an odd part of my identity: a key cog in games of two lies and a truth. Now I find myself wondering what it all means. I’ve been trying to reconstruct a timeline of events: what did and didn’t actually happen? But memory is hard to filter, so much is connected but not clearly, not linearly.
Somewhere when I was between the ages of four and five, my grandparents took me to the Uintah Basin in Celebration (UBIC). This is where I did/did not catch a greased pig. It was like a fair, I guess: events and carnival rides, a greased pig contest in the city park, even a parade. My grandma says she was surprised I even participated. I was a relatively quiet boy. I didn’t speak regularly until after I was three. In an old Christmas video, I didn’t say a single word. I just communicated with hand gestures and grunts. My grandma, more than any other person, reminds me about chasing the pig. She also often reminds me that when I was eight, I refused to eat rabbit for dinner, and that once when I slept over, I cried all night long. I also used to think she had told me I’d caught the pig. But in a recent phone call she said I didn’t catch the pig. That was something she’d have remembered. What happened to the pig? If you’d caught it, we’d have known. Something I’d have remembered for sure.
I was disappointed. She was the last cog in the puzzle, the instigator of a memory that wasn’t really a memory—more like a picture that was looked at so often it feels like a memory. In a letter she addressed to me a few years ago, she attached a picture of a pig being chased across green grass by a pair of legs. A child’s legs. These are your legs, she writes. I don’t recognize them as mine—wearing white shoes and jean shorts that are either too long or too short, a sort of capri. I tried to crossmatch the shoes from the picture my grandma gave me with other pictures. I definitely had white tennis shoes. I definitely wore cut-off jean shorts, but so did everyone else in the early ‘90s. The picture is tinged with a pink hue, pink enough that my father thought the pants were pink—girl’s pants, he said. But not my sister’s. Those aren’t her legs. We can agree on that. I don’t think the pants are pink. Even if they were pink at that time tie-dye was all the rage, if I remember right. The legs could be mine, I guess; there is no way to tell for sure.
When I was on the phone with my grandma, she brought up the Kid’s Rodeo. Didn’t you take your kids to chase animals around here, she’d said. Only that wasn’t really the way she said it. It wasn’t that clear. She’d said something like Didn’t you often take Zac to the rodeo to chase animals. But I am Zac, and she didn’t say it quite like that either. I just know that however she said it, I was confused about who had taken whom and to where. And then I realized what she was saying, she was reminding me that only a few years ago I’d taken my kids to a rodeo in Fairview, Utah. At the rodeo they chased farm animals.
That was true. That I remember.
What I don’t understand is why it is that I can remember bits of these moments but not the pig. Why don’t I remember chasing the pig?
On our way to the Kid’s Rodeo my son Lev had told Elise and I that he wanted to catch a pig just like I did. Like me? I wondered where he’d gotten the idea. Had I mentioned something? Had Elise? Maybe it was before we left the house. Maybe my dad had said something about the last time I’d tried to catch a pig and instead ended up with a faceful of dirt and a sore back; in response I may have said something about not always failing, about catching it when I was little. Maybe I had told him about it one night when I put him to bed. A bedtime story. A fairytale.
My dad, I had thought, had also told me about the time I caught the greased pig. There are stories that come around and around again. I had thought the pig had been one of these stories. Another was the time my dad and I entered a three-legged race at another festival. I was small, he said, but determined. People had laughed at us. But they didn’t laugh when we won the race. Everyone was surprised by me—little legs flying, step and step and step. The last time I asked my dad about catching a pig at a rodeo, he brought up the three-legged race. You must’ve been eight, he’d said. I wasn’t. I would’ve remembered that—because, like the pig, I don’t remember that race either. Not really. Only through my dad’s retelling.
He said he didn’t know anything about a greased pig.
I watched Lev when he chased the money goat at the rodeo. It was covered in dollar bills. Greased, I think, so the bills would stick. Funny how you grease a pig to make it harder to catch, but you grease a goat so dollar bills can be stuck to it. The kids were meant to grab the money, not the goat, but the goat didn’t seem to know this. It seemed terrified; I would be too if I had a mob of children chasing me. When the goat was fleeing the mob, trying to make its escape, it ran to the end of the arena and slid its lubricated body through the metal bars of a gate. It may have made it, too, but there were a couple of high school boys just on the other side of the gate that grabbed the goat by its front and back legs and flung it back over into the arena. The goat turned right around and bolted for the exit again. The boys grabbed it again, but by this time the hoard of children had reached the gate. No mercy for the goat. The crowd laughed and guffawed and the announcer blared something about working hard to escape fate. Lev had been determined to catch it, to grab a dollar—he is always trying to get money to buy himself toy dinosaurs and plastic animals. He didn’t get a dollar. Not one. He wasn’t fazed. He’d catch the pig, he’d said.
As an adult, before Lev was even born, I’d said the same thing. I’d been working as a photographer for the city, taking pictures at the rodeo when they announced they were going to have a greased pig chase for adults. Elise said do it. My father said do it. They needn’t have. I was going to do it.
I was going to catch the pig.
Why pigs? Why is it that a pig gets greased and chased? Why not a dog? Or a cat? Can you imagine greasing a cat? I joke, but seriously, why a pig? I’ve looked for answers. Found nothing. Nothing more than it is just quite common at fairs and festivals to grease a pig and have people chase it. The winner generally gets a prize. Sometimes the prize is the pig.
What happened to the pig? My mom asks. Like my grandma, her implication is that if I’d caught a pig when I was little, we would’ve kept it. She would’ve remembered; my mom and grandma are a lot alike. What would we have done with a pig? We lived in the city. No place for a pig. I shrugged my shoulders. Lev often shrugs his shoulders the way I did. Why is that? Anyways, my mom says, I think if you caught the pig I would’ve remembered. What happened to the pig? Probably the same thing that happened to my memory; it was lost.
I didn’t catch the pig as an adult either. When the pig was released, I ran out faster than most people. I lunged to grab it only to have its slick body slide through my arms. As I tried to readjust, to grab at it again, a mass of humanity arrived on top of me. I was pressed into the dirt of the rodeo grounds. Dirt, I imagine that has been there for many many years. Dirt, that I imagine, has been mixed with blood and poop and all sorts of other rodeo consequences.
That was the story I should’ve told Lev. I should’ve told him about how I had tried to relive my past—a past, that it turns out was as faulty as the present. I should’ve told him that there are consequences to our choices. I didn’t. So, despite his failure to catch the money goat, he tried again when the farmyard scramble was announced.
It seems, now that I think about it, I’ve been chasing pigs my whole life. This is not a metaphor. My family moved back and forth between Tonga and the United States when I was growing up. In Tonga, my brother Kaleb and I would chase the pigs that wandered into our yard. The yard of wherever we were staying: a church, a house, a friend’s home. Pigs roam freely through the villages but return to their owner when called: “Mā Mā Mā”. They come and they are fed scraps of food and old coconuts. Mostly the pigs roam freely through the streets, but when they come into a yard uninvited they dig and snuffle and eat anything that you don’t want them to eat. When they came into the yard Kaleb and I were allowed to chase them out. And we did.
A chase not meant to end with catching.
One time, I did grab the leg of a piglet; all at once it began to squeal and writhe, the mother pig stopped running and pivoted back towards me, I let go in fright, and turned and ran myself. What would its mother have done to me if I’d been caught?
My older brother Josh was there the day I caught but didn’t catch a pig, back when I was four or five. He is the only one to remember anything about the pig, but he remembers it differently: he was the one who chased the pig. He’d even grabbed it, he says. But it squirmed away from him, leaving grease marks on his pants and t-shirt. He says I didn’t even chase the pig. He says I chased a chicken instead.
I’d rather not believe his memory.
Just by climbing into the arena the first time, let alone the second time, Lev had surprised me. He is generally shy and timid in crowds. Maybe my surprise was the same kind of surprise my grandma had felt all those years ago. I do find I keep returning to this story, this moment of Lev’s courage. I remember watching him line up next to all the other children to do the farmyard scramble. I felt proud and afraid. No animal would escape. The bunnies, the chickens, the ducks were all set loose and blocked from the exits. The organizers of the events had learned their lesson from the goat; before the farmyard scramble, they boarded up gaps in the arena wall with plywood and teenagers. The announcer said, Ready, set, go. Chaos ensued: children running and scrambling and screaming around the arena, chasing the animals, shoving each other, snatching at fur and feather. The animals acted like their lives depended upon their escape, which of course it did; if a child caught an animal, they could keep it.
It’s said that Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show was the first rodeo; a conglomerate of cowboys and American Indians who demonstrated “western” skills and play-acted historical events; more circus than a competition. Of course, to really find the heart of the rodeo you have to trace its origins to the vaqueros of Mexico. Their contests were more in line with the competition and celebration of the skills necessary to work with cattle: roping, tying, riding. But it is in this tradition of competition that I see the remnants of the gladiators—man vs nature. Violence on display. This is all the more believable—rodeos stemming from old Rome —when you see the fierce expressions on the faces of the kids chasing animals: a mix of courage and terror.
In the melee of children, I lost track of Lev. Then I found him. Then I lost him again. I watched as chickens and bunnies were snatched off the ground and clasped tight. I watched as each animal was cornered and carried off. I looked for Lev. I eventually found him. He was on his hands and knees, in tears. Dirt caked to his face. Another child had pushed him over in order to get to a bunny. I jumped into the arena and went to him. I picked him up and held him close.
When I carried him out of the arena Lev said he had just wanted to catch the pig. Me too buddy, me too, I told him. But I was also relieved he hadn’t caught an animal. Relieved he wouldn’t be asking What happened to the pig? Where is the pig? I was relieved to be going home empty handed. Relieved they hadn’t done another greased pig chase for adults, because after seeing his determination to catch a pig, I wouldn’t have been able to resist trying to do it for him.
I tried to search for past records of the Uintah Basin in Celebration; I looked for archival records that might’ve listed the winners of events, dug through the internet. I couldn’t find anything. Nothing from the past, only a listing for the upcoming celebration. I called my brothers. I called my sister. My grandma. My mom. My dad. Anyone I could think of that may have been there, that may have remembered. I asked them all about the pig. I read through old letters. Nobody remembers me catching a pig. The chase, sure. Not the pig. Maybe a chicken, my brother adds. Someone once brought home a chicken, says my dad. What happened to the pig? If you’d caught it we’d have remembered, say both my mom and grandma. I used to tell people that I once caught a greased pig. At a fair or rodeo or something. This is what my memory tells me, that I caught it.
Except it doesn’t. I don’t really remember it at all.
Zachary Ostraff received his MFA in creative writing from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers at Eastern Washington University (2016). His essay, Precedent, was a semi-finalist for the 2020 Hippocampus Magazine’s Remember in November contest. He has also had work in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies and High Desert Journal. He is currently a Ph.D. student at Texas Tech University. Twitter: @ostraffz